A Look at Beethoven’s 32 Variations in C Minor (Part II)

Beth Levin

[July 2002.]

A Look at Beethoven’s 32 Variations In C Minor (Part I)

Variation XVII

A lilting Alberti bass, legato slurs and the marking dolce lead us down a tender path. The sforzandi are emphasized but never jabbed. The theme is distributed among three voices, and a bit of a search may be required to find its exact hiding place. The final eighth notes lead without pretense into Variation XVIII, an animal of a different scent.

Variation XVIII

Sweetness gives way to untamed power. Harmony, not melody, is the focus, presented in driving scales. An element of the original theme in measure six (an accented chord being triggered by the downbeat) is intact here, made even fiercer by scalar writing in stretto, often ending with a ferocious sforzando at the very top.

Variation XIX

A treble of arpeggiated triplets continues the sense of compelling motion. The theme appears now in left-hand chords alternating between the bass and treble clefs. Meshed to that is the color change from forte to piano, which sharply highlights the musical idea — f to p, lioness to lamb, again and again. The finale of the variation is one direct descent to C minor. There is something about beginning and ending each variation in the primary key that roots us and leaves us satisfied.

Variation XX
Sempre forte

The few moments of piano are gone. Beethoven is in full military outfit, advancing the musical sweep of rich treble chords triggered by forceful triplets in the bass. My Henle score offers too much fingering and a few sleight-of-hand solutions to navigating the arpeggios — unnecessary and unwanted.

Variation XXI

Again Beethoven uses the material exactly as stated in the prior variation, but reversing treble for bass. The heaviness of the chords at the bottom reinforces the overall sense of power and drama. Having the chords derive from the downbeat, and play off it, calls us back to the opening measures where this is a major element.

Variation XXII

Octaves are born of the triplets before them. The harmonic progressions are represented in five-note scale patterns. The basic elements at the piano — octaves, arpeggios and chords — transform in Beethoven’s imagination to emotion, nuance, gods and temples. Five octaves walking up the keyboard, an eight-measure theme, a well-placed sf, an unerring rhythm in three — it couldn’t be simpler. Beethoven creates a world in eight bars.

I cannot bypass the addition here of tenuto on the final note of each scale. I take it to mean a kind of emphasis, but one that alters the timing of the notes in the opposite hand, pushing the music ahead not unlike a tied note. Tenuto (“held”) affects both sound and timing in this variation.

Variation XXIII

Color and a sense of foreboding are created by the rumble of broken chords in pianissimo. The variation feels like a respite from the fiery ones before it, as well as a transition to the next. The melody can be heard subtly inside the progression of broken chords, and should be brought out but not clobbered.

Variation XXIV

Staccato triplets, sempre pp, begin the variation with a feeling of floating on air. But as the music builds to the sf of the sixth measure that has never failed us throughout, the triplets take on a relentless quality and the addition of sf on the first of each set literally drives it home.

Variation XXV

An elegant grace note dances with every beat and we are lifted skyward. If Beethoven were a programmatic composer, I would say he was showing us a dove in flight. He is not. One of my teachers, Leonard Shure, a strict Germanic professor from the old school, would occasionally forget himself and exclaim in response to a phrase of music, “It’s a leetle birdie!”

Variation XXVI

Here the treble and bass mirror each other with chords in thirds that spring from a strong first beat. Staccato, forte and the richness of the doubled thirds intensify the rhythm and keep it utterly strict. There is little room for rubato or taking a breath occasionally as one might in the more delicate, lilting variations. It is a wise pianist who knows when not to fiddle around.

Variation XXVII

Still in forte, the same doubled thirds now overlap, first treble, then bass. The writing for the two hands is equal on every level (no melody with accompaniment here) and one brings a sense of symphonic playing to this music, hands encompassing many voices and playing out many dramas.

Variation XXVIII

This variation is so simple, an Alberti bass against three quarters in the treble, two long slurs over each phrase that make of it one singing line. Beethoven marks p semplice, barely holding back another eruption.

Variation XXIX

Sudden ff arpeggios in triplets ascend and descend in contrary motion, converge at times but maintain a hellish pace to the end. Because the tempo of each variation is the equal of the original theme (Allegretto), the running notes (16ths, 32nds) move at a good pace. Upholding the original tempo throughout helps to unify a theme and its many variations.

Variation XXX

Portamento chords walk in three, crescendo, then diminuendo to pp. It is the theme broken down to its barest parts.

Variation XXXI

Continuing in pp and in the same mood, the theme is presented in octaves against running notes. This creates a wash of harmonic color and motion. One likes to hear each 32nd note, but just as important are the notes as a group and the cumulative sound they make. The final measure is a crescendo of scale notes in interesting groups of seven, leading us to the final variation.

Variation XXXII

It has crept up on us, still a whisper of sound, color and motion in the bass line. Now the words più crescendo sweep up the sound and carry it to the level of ff in a mere eight bars. The 16ths in the treble play in groups of seven against fours and fives in the bass — the result is as vibrant as a Van Gogh wheat field. At the ff the bass becomes more skeletal, and the writing to the end is leaner — less sound as color.

Beethoven introduces the theme in the bass against poignant two-note slurs, still devising variation. The slurs give way to a fraction of the theme — the penultimate measure, to be exact. He has been embedded in C minor for pages, but still produced new twists. C minor has been a language in which to create poetry, romp, rail, dance — to build, dream and rouse. As he approaches the end of the variation and of the work itself, Beethoven returns to the pivotal sixth measure of the theme, the F-minor chord which tumbles now in broken octaves to V I, V I the definition of C minor.

[Beethoven wrote 32 Variations in C minor, WoO 80, in 1806 - - the year that saw him produce the Fourth Symphony, "Rasumovsky" Quartets and Violin Concerto. Its lowly without-opus tag hasn’t deterred prominent advocates: Arrau, Gilels, Gould, Horowitz, Kempff, Lupu, Moravec, Perahia, Uchida. The speed extremes are Moravec’s 9:58 and Gould’s 13:21. Perahia’s is from a 1989 date ["The Aldeburgh Recital"]. He’s playing it live these days, so perhaps a studio recording is in the works. And Schubert referred to the original theme at the start of his D. 958 sonata, also in C minor. — W.M.]


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